On November 5, Muatasem Abbasi became a statistic.
His home in Silwan, which he shared with his parents, joined the ranks of the 155 Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem the Jerusalem municipality has demolished so far this year, as of November 14. The reason: it had been built without a permit.
Abbasi, whose home was built in 2011, said they had been trying to get a building permit for years. Two years ago, city inspectors came to look at the house and then went away. He was not aware of any demolition order against his house.
In February he was fined NIS 80,000 for building without a permit and has been paying the municipality in monthly installments of NIS 1,300.
On the morning of November 5, Abbasi, 30, had left for work. His 23-year-old wife, Bara’a Obaid, was home alone with their two toddlers when the police arrived. His parents were in their home on the second floor of the building.
“They knocked on the door and told me to open up,” recalled Obaid. “I asked them to wait a moment so I could cover my hair but they didn’t let me close the door and they came inside. They gave me five minutes to get dressed and dress my children. They didn’t let me take anything. They threw our things from the window. I asked from them a number of times for a little bit of mercy but they didn’t give me any.”
With the help of family and friends, the couple was able to gather a few pieces of clothing and rescue a white living room set from the rubble of the home. For the next month they are staying in an unused apartment Abbasi’s uncle built on top of his own home for one of his sons, in a crowded neighborhood near the Mount of Olives.
Their grandmother bought the children some new clothes so they would have something to wear, and Abbasi’s parents went to live with his older brother.
“For five years we lived together in our house, nobody bothered us and we didn’t bother anybody. We were in our house and our children ran outside and the only thing we heard was their laughter,” said Obaid. “All day now my son remembers how the police destroyed our house.”
A 15-year high in home demolitions
According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, Israeli authorities have demolished more East Jerusalem Palestinian homes in 2019 than in any single year since 2004. For the past 15 years, an average of 54 residential units a year were demolished.
There has also been a marked increase in the number of Palestinians who demolish their own homes, in order to avoid incurring the fine imposed by the municipality for carrying out the demolition. This year 37 people demolished their own homes, compared to only 12 last year.
Since 1967, Israel has expropriated more than 38 percent of East Jerusalem for the construction of settlements for Israelis. Today Palestinians constitute 37 percent of Jerusalem’s population; however, only 15 percent of East Jerusalem, and 8.5 percent of the total area of the city, is zoned for their residential use.
“It’s true that we built the house without a legal permit,” said Abbasi, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep three days after the demolition. “But we tried to get a permit, we tried several times. We got an engineer and an architect and a lawyer. I paid $30,000 to the planning authorities. We were waiting to go to court.”
Four months ago the municipality also demolished a row of small shops and offices Abbasi and his brother had built down the hill from his house. His brother had used one of the spaces for his accounting office, and another brother had a furniture business in one of the shops. There was also a small cafe at the site. All three brothers lost their livelihood when the buildings were destroyed.
Abbasi, a plumber and carpenter by trade, has not been able to go back to work, he said.
“I don’t know how I will continue because they not only destroyed a house, they demolished a whole family. The first time they hurt my livelihood, then they destroyed my home,” said Abbasi.
The municipality did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on house demolitions in East Jerusalem in general, or on the specific cases mentioned in this article.
‘This is to show them who is boss here’
Between 1991-2018, municipal planners approved a total of 48,201 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, 21,834 of which are in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. In Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, only 9,536 units were approved.
Ir Amim researcher Aviv Tatarsky cited an “astonishing” gap between what the municipality has approved in the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. This year, he said, some 12,000 housing units were approved for Jewish neighborhoods, compared to a mere 1,500 in Palestinian neighborhoods.
“It is chronic discrimination and one of the issues most hurtful for Palestinians,” said Tatarsky. “The problem is we tend to focus too much on the issue of settlements and we forget that Palestinians are marrying and need homes, regardless of the big political issue.”
Tatarsky believes that Israel’s planning and building policy is motivated by demographic considerations: they want to annex land without including too many Palestinians. According to this theory, Palestinians will leave Jerusalem if they cannot build a home in the city.
But Jerusalem expert and lawyer Daniel Seidemann said the issue is more about asserting Israeli control, rather than pushing Palestinians out.
“This is to show who is boss here. To show that yes, you Palestinians have rights here but they can be withdrawn, you have property here but we can expropriate, you have residency rights, but we can cancel them,” he said. “The subjugation of Palestinians is included in the occupation. The atmosphere is difficult so Israel is doubling down on the occupation…[using] repressive and controlling measures in order to sustain itself.”
Additionally, Seidemann said, since most Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not vote in municipal elections, politicians have no incentive to take up their cause.
Just below French Hill, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, Ishaq Hamdan, a 55-year-old car mechanic, has been trying to build on a plot of land he owns at the edge of the Palestinian village of Issawiya. In 1985 he built a house that was demolished. In 1995 he tried to build his own garage but it, too, was demolished. In 2000 he began building a wedding hall, but the Israeli authorities destroyed it upon its completion in 2008. In 2014, he decided to build two apartments for his older sons; they, too, were torn down.
Hamdan served over two years in prison for driving without a license; it was revoked because he had not paid all his building fines. Now he is living in the middle of the crowded old part of the village.
Most recently Hamdan built a carwash on his property for his son to work at, and a small stable for his youngest son’s horse. In early November the car wash and the horse stable were demolished, and even the water tank for the horse’s water was toppled over so they wouldn’t be able to use it.
Meanwhile, according to the Jerusalem municipality’s website, on September 11 the local Planning and Building Committee, chaired by Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchenberger, approved plans to renovate the French Hill commercial center, which is about a 15-minute drive from Hamdan’s plot. The Commercial Center Renovation Plan would replace the old commercial center with a mixed-use complex to include a large urban plaza, new public buildings and the construction of five buildings — two 12-story buildings, two 18-story buildings and one eight-story building, with the upper floors to include 213 new residential units.
From where he stands near the toppled water tank, Hamdan gazes up at the multi-family cottages of French Hill. They creep down the hillside toward what was once the agricultural land of Issawiya.
“What can I do? Eat my heart out? I will have a heart attack,” said the father of six, who now owes the municipality over NIS 1 million for building fines. One of his sons is an architect and the other is studying to be an engineer. “I just want to know why it is forbidden to build here. I have to give my children apartments. I don’t have the space in my house for everyone to live [when they get married].”
He has a packet of documents he shuffles through, attesting to his fines, payments, land ownership, building plans, adjustments to the building plans and court cases. There is even a court order to put the demolition order on hold. But nothing makes sense to him.
“I suffer because of this situation. [But] it is important to stay here on this land,” said Hamdan.
‘I will give her back her dream’
At the other end of East Jerusalem, in the Wadi Yasul neighborhood, Quosiy Burqan walks by the debris of what had been his home. The headboard of a bed juts out from under the broken cement.
Both his and his brother’s homes were demolished seven months ago.
Close to 500 people live in Wadi Yasul, adjacent to a forest that was expropriated from its Palestinian owners in 1970. This forested area, and the land where the Wadi Yasul neighborhood was established, was zoned by the Jerusalem municipality as a green area in 1977. But Burqan’s father built the two homes in Wadi Yasul some 30 years ago.
“This land belongs to my father. My children were born here. I lived here when I was single. We tried all the ways we could to get building permission,” said Burqan, one of 12 siblings. When the police came that early morning in March this year to demolish the house, his children were still in bed. Neighbors stalled the police so he and his wife had enough time to quickly bundle up the children and take them to nearby Abu Tor, where their grandparents live, so they would not have to see their homes being demolished.
They were able to rescue very little from the homes, he said, adding: “The hardest thing was seeing my parents cry.”
In 2004 the residents of Wadi Yasul submitted a plan which they had paid for out of their own pockets to the District Planning and Building Committee for retroactive authorization of their homes, but their request was rejected in 2008 on the grounds that the area was zoned to remain a green space.
There are now court-ordered demolitions for all the homes in Wadi Yasul, though families have appealed the decision both with the District Court and the Supreme Court, seeking an interim injunction on carrying out the orders. All of the homes are still under threat of demolition and all residents were issued tens of thousands of shekels in fines.
“You know what is funny? The city is still sending me bills for the arnona (property tax) even after they demolished my house. I was paying arnona,” said Burqan. He was also fined NIS 74,000 for the demolition of his house and another NIS 4,000 for pitching a tent when neighbors came to pay solidarity visits.
“I will be paying fines till the day I die. The minute I finish with one fine they give me another,” Burqan continued. “If you are an Arab there isn’t any permission for you, if you are a settler you get everything, all the doors are opened before you. We don’t have any power. All the power is in the hand of Israel. But I won’t go to jail for this, it is not how my parents educated me. We will pay the fines, we will stay here, we won’t leave.”
On the Mount of Olives, still adjusting to her new reality and not knowing where she will be living in another month, Abassi’s wife Obaid jiggles her fussing two-year-old daughter on her lap.
“I have nothing to say. I was able to get these two rooms and we are together with my two children,” Obaid said. “My dream was destroyed.”
Abbasi looks over to his wife with red-rimmed eyes and stubs out a cigarette.
“I will give her her strength back,” he said. “And I will give her back her dream.”